Unearthing Gorini, The Petrifier

This post originally appeared on The Order of the Good Death

Many years ago, as I had just begun to explore the history of medicine and anatomical preparations, I became utterly fascinated with the so-called “petrifiers”: 19th and early 20th century anatomists who carried out obscure chemical procedures in order to give their specimens an almost stone-like, everlasting solidity.
Their purpose was to solve two problems at once: the constant shortage of corpses to dissect, and the issue of hygiene problems (yes, back in the time dissection was a messy deal).
Each petrifier perfected his own secret formula to achieve virtually incorruptible anatomical preparations: the art of petrifaction became an exquisitely Italian specialty, a branch of anatomy that flourished due to a series of cultural, scientific and political factors.

When I first encountered the figure of Paolo Gorini (1813-1881), I made the mistake of assuming his work was very similar to that of his fellow petrifiers.
But as soon as I stepped foot inside the wonderful Gorini Collection in Lodi, near Milan, I was surprised at how few scientifically-oriented preparations it contained: most specimens were actually whole, undissected human heads, feet, hands, infants, etc. It struck me that these were not meant as medical studies: they were attempts at preserving the body forever. Was Gorini looking for a way to have the deceased transformed into a genuine statue? Why?
I needed to know more.

A biographical research is a mighty strange experience: digging into the past in search of someone’s secret is always an enterprise doomed to failure. No matter how much you read about a person’s life, their deepest desires and dreams remain forever inaccessible.
And yet, the more I examined books, papers, documents about Paolo Gorini, the more I felt I could somehow relate to this man’s quest.
Yes, he was an eccentric genius. Yes, he lived alone in his ghoulish laboratory, surrounded by “the bodies of men and beasts, human limbs and organs, heads with their hair preserved […], items made from animal substances for use as chess or draughts pieces; petrified livers and brain tissue, hardened skin and hides, nerve tissue from oxen, etc.”. And yes, he somehow enjoyed incarnating the mad scientist character, especially among his bohemian friends – writers and intellectuals who venerated him. But there was more.

It was necessary to strip away the legend from the man. So, as one of Gorini’s greatest passions was geology, I approached him as if he was a planet: progressing deeper and deeper, through the different layers of crust that make up his stratified enigma.
The outer layer was the one produced by mythmaking folklore, nourished by whispered tales, by fleeting glimpses of horrific visions and by popular rumors. “The Magician”, they called him. The man who could turn bodies into stone, who could create mountains from molten lava (as he actually did in his “experimental geology” public demonstrations).
The layer immediately beneath that unveiled the image of an “anomalous” scientist who was, however, well rooted in the Zeitgeist of his times, its spirit and its disputes, with all the vices and virtues derived therefrom.
The most intimate layer – the man himself – will perhaps always be a matter of speculation. And yet certain anecdotes are so colorful that they allowed me to get a glimpse of his fears and hopes.

Still, I didn’t know why I felt so strangely close to Gorini.

His preparations sure look grotesque and macabre from our point of view. He had access to unclaimed bodies at the morgue, and could experiment on an inconceivable number of corpses (“For most of my life I have substituted – without much discomfort – the company of the dead for the company of the living…”), and many of the faces that we can see in the Museum are those of peasants and poor people. This is the reason why so many visitors might find the Collection in Lodi quite unsettling, as opposed to a more “classic” anatomical display.
And yet, here is what looks like a macroscopic incongruity: near the end of his life, Gorini patented the first really efficient crematory. His model was so good it was implemented all over the world, from London to India. One could wonder why this man, who had devoted his entire life to making corpses eternal, suddenly sought to destroy them through fire.
Evidently, Gorini wasn’t fighting death; his crusade was against putrefaction.

When Paolo was only 12 years old, he saw his own father die in a horrific carriage accident. He later wrote: “That day was the black point of my life that marked the separation between light and darkness, the end of all joy, the beginning of an unending procession of disasters. From that day onwards I felt myself to be a stranger in this world…
The thought of his beloved father’s body, rotting inside the grave, probably haunted him ever since. “To realize what happens to the corpse once it has been closed inside its underground prison is a truly horrific thing. If we were somehow able to look down and see inside it, any other way of treating the dead would be judged as less cruel, and the practice of burial would be irreversibly condemned”.

That’s when it hit me.


This was exactly what made his work so relevant: all Gorini was really trying to do was elaborate a new way of dealing with the “scandal” of dead bodies.
He was tirelessly seeking a more suitable relationship with the remains of missing loved ones. For a time, he truly believed petrifaction could be the answer. Who would ever resort to a portrait – he thought – when a loved one could be directly immortalized for all eternity?
Gorini even suggested that his petrified heads be used to adorn the gravestones of Lodi’s cemetery – an unfortunate but candid proposal, made with the most genuine conviction and a personal sense of pietas. (Needless to say this idea was not received with much enthusiasm).

Gorini was surely eccentric and weird but, far from being a madman, he was also cherished by his fellow citizens in Lodi, on the account of his incredible kindness and generosity. He was a well-loved teacher and a passionate patriot, always worried that his inventions might be useful to the community.
Therefore, as soon as he realized that petrifaction might well have its advantages in the scientific field, but it was neither a practical nor a welcome way of dealing with the deceased, he turned to cremation.

Redefining the way we as a society interact with the departed, bringing attention to the way we treat bodies, focusing on new technologies in the death field – all these modern concerns were already at the core of his research.
He was a man of his time, but also far ahead of it. Gorini the scientist and engineer, devoted to the destiny of the dead, would paradoxically encounter more fertile conditions today than in the 20th century. It’s not hard to imagine him enthusiastically experimenting with alkaline hydrolysis or other futuristic techniques of treating human remains. And even if some of his solutions, such as his petrifaction procedures, are now inevitably dated and detached from contemporary attitudes, they do seem to have been the beginning of a still pertinent urge and of a research that continues today.

The Petrifier is the fifth volume of the Bizzarro Bazar Collection. Text (both in Italian and English) by Ivan Cenzi, photographs by Carlo Vannini.

 

The Punished Suicide

This article originally appeared on Death & The Maiden, a website exploring the relationship between women and death.

Padova, Italy. 1863.

One ash-grey morning, a young girl jumped into the muddy waters of the river which ran just behind the city hospital. We do not know her name, only that she worked as a seamstress, that she was 18 years old, and that her act of suicide was in all probability provoked by “amorous delusion”.
A sad yet rather unremarkable event, one that history could have well forgotten – hadn’t it happened, so to speak, in the right place and time.

The city of Padova was home to one of the oldest Universities in history, and it was also recognized as the cradle of anatomy. Among others, the great Vesalius, Morgagni and Fallopius had taught medicine there; in 1595 Girolamo Fabrici d’Acquapendente had the first stable anatomical theater built inside the University’s main building, Palazzo del Bo.


In 1863, the chair of Anatomical Pathology at the University was occupied by Lodovico Brunetti (1813-1899) who, like many anatomists of his time, had come up with his own process for preserving anatomical specimens: tannization. His method consisted in drying the specimens and injecting them with tannic acid; it was a long and difficult procedure (and as such it would not go on to have much fortune) but nonetheless gave astounding results in terms of quality. I have had the opportunity of feeling the consistency of some of his preparations, and still today they maintain the natural dimensions, elasticity and softness of the original tissues.
But back to our story.

When Brunetti heard about the young girl’s suicide, he asked her body be brought to him, so he could carry out his experiments.
First he made a plaster cast of the her face and upper bust. Then he peeled away all of the skin from her head and neck, being especially careful as to preserve the girl’s beautiful golden hair. He then proceeded to treat the skin, scouring it with sulfuric ether and fixing it with his own tannic acid formula. Once the skin was saved from putrefaction, he laid it out over the plaster cast reproducing the girl’s features, then added glass eyes and plaster ears to his creation.

But something was wrong.
The anatomist noticed that in several places the skin was lacerated. Those were the gashes left by the hooks men had used to drag the body out of the water, unto the banks of the river.
Brunetti, who in all evidence must have been a perfectionist, came up with a clever idea to disguise those marks.

He placed some wooden branches beside her chest, then entwined them with tannised snakes, carefully mounting the reptiles as if they were devouring the girl’s face. He poured some red candle wax to serve as blood spurts, and there it was: a perfect allegory of the punishment reserved in Hell to those who committed the mortal sin of  suicide.

He called his piece The Punished Suicide.

Now, if this was all, Brunetti would look like some kind of psychopath, and his work would just be unacceptable and horrifying, from any kind of ethical perspective.
But the story doesn’t end here.
After completing this masterpiece, the first thing Brunetti did was showing it to the girl’s parents.
And this is where things take a really weird turn.
Because the dead girl’s parents, instead of being dismayed and horrified, actually praised him for the precision shown in reproducing their daughter’s features.
So perfectly did I preserve her physiognomy – Brunetti proudly noted, – that those who saw her did easily recognize her”.

But wait, there’s more.
Four years later, the Universal Exposition was opening in Paris, and Brunetti asked the University to grant him funds to take the Punished Suicide to France. You would expect some kind of embarrassment on the part of the university, instead they happily financed his trip to Paris.


At the Exposition, thousands of spectators swarmed in from all around the world to see the latest innovations in technology and science, and saw the Punished Suicide. What would you think happened to Brunetti then? Was he hit by scandal, was his work despised and criticized?
Not at all. He won the Grand Prix in the Arts and Professions.

If you feel kind of dizzy by now, well, you probably should.
Looking at this puzzling story, we are left with only two options: either everybody in the whole world, including Brunetti, was blatantly insane; or there must exist some kind of variance in perception between our views on mortality and those held by people at the time.
It always strikes me how one does not need to go very far back in time to feel this kind of vertigo: all this happened less than 150 years ago, yet we cannot even begin to understand what our great-great-grandfathers were thinking.
Of course, anthropologists tell us that the cultural removal of death and the medicalization of dead bodies are relatively recent processes, which started around the turn of the last century. But it’s not until we are faced with a difficult “object” like this, that we truly grasp the abysmal distance separating us from our ancestors, the intensity of this shift in sensibility.
The Punished Suicide is, in this regard, a complex and wonderful reminder of how society’s boundaries and taboos may vary over a short period of time.
A perfect example of intersection between art (whether or not it encounters our modern taste), anatomy (it was meant to illustrate a preserving method) and the sacred (as an allegory of the Afterlife), it is one of the most challenging displays still visible in the ‘Morgagni’ Museum of Anatomical Pathology in Padova.

This nameless young girl’s face, forever fixed in tormented agony inside her glass case, cannot help but elicit a strong emotional response. It presents us with many essential questions on our past, on our own relationship with death, on how we intend to treat our dead in the future, on the ethics of displaying human remains in Museums, and so on.
On the account of all these rich and fruitful dilemmas, I like to think her death was at least not entirely in vain.

The “Morgagni” Museum of Pathology in Padova is the focus of the latest entry in the Bizzarro Bazar Collection, His Anatomical Majesty. Photography by Carlo Vannini. The story of the ‘Punished Suicide’ was unearthed by F. Zampieri, A. Zanatta and M. Rippa Bonati on Physis, XLVIII(1-2):297-338, 2012.

Death and Broken Cups

This article originally appeared on The Order of the Good Death. I have already written, here and here, about the death positive movement, to which this post is meant as a small contribution.

___________

As soon as the grave is filled in, acorns should be planted over it, so that new trees will grow out of it later, and the wood will be as thick as it was before. All traces of my grave shall vanish from the face of the earth, as I flatter myself that my memory will vanish from the minds of men”.

This passage from the will of the Marquis de Sade has always struck a chord with me. Of course, he penned it as his last raging, disdainful grimace at mankind, but the very same thought can also be peaceful.
I have always been sensitive to the poetic, somewhat romantic fantasy of the taoist or buddhist monk retiring on his pretty little mountain, alone, to get ready for death. In my younger days, I thought dying meant leaving the world behind, and that it carried no responsibility. In fact, it was supposed to finally free me of all responsibility. My death belonged only to me.
An intimate, sacred, wondrous experience I would try my best to face with curiosity.
Impermanence? Vanishing “from the minds of men”? Who cares. If my ego is transient like everything else, that’s actually no big deal. Let me go, people, once and for all.
In my mind, the important thing was focusing on my own death. To train. To prepare.

I want my death to be delicate, quiet, discreet”, I would write in my diary.
I’d prefer to walk away tiptoe, as not to disturb anyone. Without leaving any trace of my passage”.

Unfortunately, I am now well aware it won’t happen this way, and I shall be denied the sweet comfort of being swiftly forgotten.
I have spent most of my time domesticating death – inviting it into my home, making friends with it, understanding it – and now I find the only thing I truly fear about my own demise is the heartbreak it will inevitably cause. It’s the other side of loving and being loved: death will hurt, it will come at the cost of wounding and scarring the people I cherish the most.

Dying is never just a private thing, it’s about others.
And you can feel comfortable, ready, at peace, but to look for a “good” death means to help your loved ones prepare too. If only there was a simple way.

The thing is, we all endure many little deaths.
Places can die: we come back to the playground we used to run around as kids, and now it’s gone, swallowed up by a hideous gas station.
The melancholy of not being allowed to kiss for the first time once again.
We’ve ached for the death of our dreams, of our relationships, of our own youth, of the exciting time when every evening out with our best friends felt like a new adventure. All these things are gone forever.
And we have experienced even smaller deaths, like our favorite mug tumbling to the floor one day, and breaking into pieces.

It’s the same feeling every time, as if something was irremediably lost. We look at the fragments of the broken mug, and we know that even if we tried to glue them together, it wouldn’t be the same cup anymore. We can still see its image in our mind, remember what it was like, but know it will never be whole again.

I have sometimes come across the idea that when you lose someone, the pain can never go away; but if you learn to accept it you can still go on living. That’s not enough, though.
I think we need to embrace grief, rather than just accepting it, we need to make it valuable. It sounds weird, because pain is a new taboo, and we live in a world that keeps on telling us that suffering has no value. We’re always devising painkillers for any kind of aching. But sorrow is the other side of love, and it shapes us, defines us and makes us unique.

For centuries in Japan potters have been taking broken bowls and cups, just like our fallen mug, and mending them with lacquer and powdered gold, a technique called kintsugi. When the object is reassembled, the golden cracks – forming such a singular decoration, impossible to duplicate – become its real quality. Scars transform a common bowl into a treasure.

I would like my death to be delicate, quiet, discreet.
I would prefer to walk away tiptoe, as not to disturb anyone, and tell my dear ones: don’t be afraid.

You think the cup is broken, but sorrow is the other side of love, it proves that you have loved. And it is a golden lacquer which can be used to put the pieces together.
Here, look at this splinter: this is that winter night we spent playing the blues before the fireplace, snow outside the window and mulled wine in our glasses.
Take this other one: this is when I told you I’d decided to quit my job, and you said go ahead, I’m on your side.
This piece is when you were depressed, and I dragged you out and took you down to the beach to see the eclipse.
This piece is when I told you I was in love with you.

We all have a kintsugi heart.
Grief is affection, we can use it to keep the splinters together, and turn them into a jewel. Even more beautiful than before.
As Tom Waits put it, “all that you’ve loved, is all you own“.

Mummie officinali

mummia

Se vi dicessimo che soltanto tre secoli fa i nostri antenati praticavano diffusamente il cannibalismo, non ci credereste. E certamente non staremmo parlando di cadaveri smembrati e fatti arrosto sulla griglia. Esistono forme più sottili e meno eclatanti per mangiare un morto.

Fino al 1800 in Europa coloro che erano affetti da qualche tipo di malattia sapevano di poter contare su uno dei farmaci più potenti e ricercati di sempre: le mummie.
A patto di poterselo permettere, si aveva facoltà di acquistare tutta una varietà di unguenti, oli, tinture e polveri estratti da cadaveri mummificati, per uso esterno ed interno. Alcuni di questi rimedi andavano spalmati sulla parte dolorante, altri servivano per impacchi da porre direttamente sulle ferite aperte, altri ancora venivano assunti per via orale oppure inalati. Curavano quasi ogni genere di disturbo, dall’emicrania all’epilessia, dal mal di stomaco al mal di denti, dalle punture velenose alle ulcere, e via dicendo.

Mummy_at_British_Museum

Da quando furono scoperte nelle tombe egizie, le mummie esercitarono immediatamente un fortissimo fascino sull’immaginario occidentale: corpi miracolosamente incorrotti, sottoposti a un misterioso procedimento che rendeva le loro carni impermeabili al passare del tempo. L’idea che le mummie potessero avere degli effetti benefici contro le malattie e per allungare la vita derivava da due concetti molto in voga nei secoli passati.
Da una parte c’era la dottrina della transplantatio, mutuata da Paracelso, secondo cui un corpo morto poteva ancora “trasferire” le sue qualità spirituali: dal punto di vista antropologico, quest’idea è molto simile al cannibalismo rituale vero e proprio, in cui il corpo del nemico viene mangiato per ottenere il suo coraggio e la forza dimostrata in battaglia – e alcuni hanno voluto leggere perfino nel rituale dell’Eucarestia la stessa volontà, tramite la libagione simbolica delle carni (il “corpo di Cristo”), di appropriarsi dei caratteri spirituali superiori del defunto/santo.
Dall’altra parte si credeva nel principio terapeutico denominato similia similibus, vale a dire che il male andava sconfitto con qualcosa che gli fosse simile. In questo senso, per il corpo umano nessun ritrovato terapeutico poteva essere più efficace che il corpo umano stesso. Tutte le secrezioni prodotte in vita erano utilizzate come farmaci, e com’è naturale anche il corpo morto aveva le sue virtù.

Ma non pensiate che queste pratiche fossero appannaggio dell’antichità. Il corpo umano era considerato insostituibile per la guarigione da disturbi e malattie ancora a metà del ‘700, tanto che la Farmacopea di James del 1758 riporta alla voce Homo:

l’Uomo non è solo il soggetto della medicina, ma anche contribuisce dal suo corpo molte cose alla Materia Medica. I [composti] semplici delle Officine, tratti dal corpo umano ancora vivo, sono i peli, le ugne, la saliva, la cera delle orecchie, il sudore, il latte, il sangue mestruo, le secondine, l’orina, il sangue e la membrana che copre la testa del feto […].

Altre fonti citano fra i prodotti naturali del corpo umano da utilizzare come farmaci anche il seme, lo sterco, i vermi intestinali, i calcoli, i pidocchi. Il testo medico precedente continua così:

Li semplici poi, che si traggono dal cadavero umano, sono la Mummia, che ha una superfizie resinosa, indurita, nera, e risplendente, di sapore alquanto acre, e amaretto, e di odore fragrante.

EGYPT-MUMMY-RAMSES

Con queste premesse, è ovvio che le straordinarie mummie egiziane, che tanto stupore avevano suscitato fin dai tempi di Erodoto, fossero ritenute fra le più raffinate panacee esistenti. Le resine e gli unguenti utilizzati per conservare il cadavere in Egitto non facevano che esaltare le proprietà curative del cadavere stesso. Per questo motivo, tutte le farmacopee del XVII e XVIII secolo avvertono che vi sono sul mercato tipi differenti di mummia, e che bisogna saperli ben distinguere per non farsi “fregare” al momento dell’acquisto. La categorizzazione più precisa è forse quella di Johann Schroder (1600-1664), contenuta nella sua Pharmacopoeia:

1. Mummia degli Arabi, che è il liquame, o liquore, denso che essuda dai cadaveri nel sepolcro conditi con aloe, Mirra e Balsamo.
2. Degli Egiziani, che è il liquame sprigionato dai cadaveri conditi con il Pissasfalto [pece + asfalto]. Sicuramente così venivano conditi i cadaveri dei poveri, e pertanto non si trovano facilmente esposti cadaveri in tal modo conditi.
3. Pissasfalto composto, cioè bitume misto a pece, che rivendicano essere vera Mummia.
4. Cadavere disseccato sotto l’arena arsa dal Sole. Si trova nella regione degli Ammoni, che è tra la regione di Cirene ed Alessandria, dove le Sirti deserte, sollevato il turbine dei venti, seppelliscono i corpi degli incauti viandanti, e qui asciugano e seccano i loro cadaveri per il calore del Sole ardente.
5. A queste si può aggiungere la Mummia recente.

Le mummie più pregiate rimasero sempre le mummie “nere”, egiziane, rubate dai nobili mausolei e dalle tombe più antiche; le meno efficaci invece erano quelle “recenti”, ovvero dei cadaveri morti da poco, trattati in modo che le proprietà benefiche ne fossero esaltate. Dato il fiorente mercato di mummie o parti di mummia (il porto di Venezia era rinomato per questo particolare smercio), bisognava davvero fare attenzione a tutti quei venditori disonesti che si procuravano dei cadaveri, li essiccavano frettolosamente e cercavano di farli passare per mummie autentiche.
Se invece si voleva fare le cose per bene, anche in assenza di una Mumia d’elite egiziana, si poteva ricorrere alla Basilica Chymica (1608), in cui Osvald Croll esponeva la ricetta per la preparazione della mummia di Paracelso, detta Filosofica o Spirituale:

Si prenda il cadavere di un uomo rosso, sano, appena morto di morte vergognosa, di circa ventiquattro anni, impiccato, tritato dalla Ruota o impalato, raccolto con un tempo sereno, di notte o di giorno. Questa Mummia, una volta colorata ed irradiata da due finestre, si trita a pezzi o a briciole e si cosparge di polvere di Mirra, di almeno un po’ di Aloe (poiché troppa la renderebbe amara), poi si imbeve, lasciandola macerare per qualche giorno in spirito di vino; viene a sospendersene un poco e si imbeve per la seconda volta, dal momento che quanto è venuto a sospendersi si seccherebbe inutilmente all’aria sino a prender l’aspetto della carne arrostita senza odore. Poi con lo Spirito di vino, come secondo l’arte, o con quello Sambucino, si estrae una tintura rubicondissima.

Avete letto bene, grappa o sambuca di mummia. Ovviamente qui la transplantatio di cui parlavamo prima, ossia il passaggio delle qualità spirituali dal morto al vivo, viene dimenticata (chi vorrebbe assumere le qualità di un criminale condannato a morte?) in favore di un’attenzione particolare per la buona “salute” del cadavere – giovane, di pelle chiara, senza macchie e fisicamente sano. La formula di Croll, con qualche variante, resterà la base per tutti i preparati di mummia officinale in età moderna, talvolta chiamata mummia liquida, Mummia dei Medici Chimici, ecc.

Verso la fine del XVIII secolo la mummia comincerà pian piano a sparire dalle farmacopee ufficiali, sostituita da nuovi composti, in concomitanza con il progresso della chimica applicata e della farmacologia. Questa commistione, ai nostri occhi inconcepibile, di medicina galenica e di alchimia andrà affievolendosi fino ad essere totalmente rifiutata dalla scienza nella prima metà dell’800. Le due discipline si separeranno definitivamente, e le mummie superstiti troveranno posto nei musei, invece che sugli scaffali dei farmacisti.

Apothecary mummy

Le informazioni contenute in questo articolo provengono dallo studio di Silvia Marinozzi, La mummia come rimedio terapeutico, in Le mummie e l’arte medica nell’Evo Moderno, Medicina nei Secoli, Supplemento 1, 2005.

Homunculus

Abbiamo già parlato di Stefano Bessoni nel nostro speciale dedicato al film Krokodyle (2010). Ritorniamo ad occuparci di lui e del suo universo macabro e sorprendente, più unico che raro in Italia, perché proprio domani esce in tutte le librerie, edito da Logos, un suo libro di illustrazioni incentrate sul tema dell’homunculus.

L’omuncolo è un essere “artificiale”, creato cioè secondo segreti rituali alchemici, e la sua leggenda  risale all’inizio del 1500. Sembra che il primo a parlare della possibilità di creare la vita a partire da un complesso procedimento, a metà strada fra scienza e magia, sia stato l’astrologo e alchimista Paracelso. La peculiarità degli omuncoli è quello di essere una sorta di uomini in miniatura – talvolta perfettamente formati, ma altre volte meno “riusciti”.

Prendendo spunto da queste antiche teorie, Stefano Bessoni in questa fiaba gotica ci racconta la storia di Zendak, un medico anatomista tassidermista che assieme alla figlia Rachel è diventato celebre per i suoi preparati anatomici, soprattutto di feti e bambini preservati in formalina; ma, impazzito a causa della morte di Rachel, Zendak si dedicherà alle arti oscure, cercando di dare vita a un omuncolo che possa riempire il vuoto lasciato dalla perdita della figlia adorata.

La storia è narrata con una filastrocca in rima, come accadeva nelle vecchie favole, e alle parole si accompagnano i cupi, malinconici, poetici e ironici disegni di Bessoni; inoltre impreziosisce il libriccino un’appendice finale che contiene delle ricette (alcune più classiche, altre più moderne, ma tutte rigorosamente testate e funzionanti!) per la preparazione e la creazione di un omuncolo.

Homunculus di Stefano Bessoni è acquistabile anche online a questo indirizzo.

Sculture tassidermiche – I

In anni recenti, la tassidermia artistica (cioè non naturalistica) ha conosciuto un rinnovato interesse da parte di pubblico e critica. Come è noto, la tassidermia è l’antica arte di impagliare gli animali: della bestia viene conservata soltanto la pelle (ed eventuali unghie o corna), e a seconda delle dimensioni e della specie si seguono diversi procedimenti per ridare la forma più naturale possibile all’esemplare. La tassidermia ha conosciuto la sua fortuna con la nascita dei musei di storia naturale e, in un secondo tempo, con la diffusione nel ‘900 della caccia come sport. Ma in entrambi i casi quello che l’artista cercava di raggiungere era un risultato il più possibile vicino alla realtà, rendendo l’animale impagliato il più vivo possibile, replicando minuziosamente le pose che assume in natura, ecc. La tassidermia artistica utilizza invece le tecniche di imbalsamazione e preparazione per attingere a risultati non realistici – per creare insomma chimere, mostri e animali impossibili.


Questo tipo di tassidermia non è certo una novità: già il tassidermista tedesco Hermann Ploucquet aveva incantato i visitatori della Grande Mostra del 1851 con i suoi “animali comici”, animali impagliati in pose antropomorfe che si sfidavano in improbabili duelli. Ploucquet poteva contare fra i suoi “fan” più celebri la Regina Vittoria in persona.

Ploucquet è generalmente ritenuto la maggiore influenza per il tassidermista vittoriano Walter Potter, divenuto celebre per i suoi diorami di complessità e ricercatezza ineguagliate. Classi di scuola in cui gli studenti sono tutti coniglietti impagliati, rane imbalsamate che fanno esercizi di ginnastica (grazie a un meccanismo automatico nascosto che dona loro il movimento), cerimonie di nozze fra topolini, e altre situazioni surreali costituivano il fulcro del suo Museo delle Curiosità.

Ogni piccolo dettaglio, dai quaderni ai calamai, dai vestitini alle tazzine da tè era maniacalmente riprodotto, e ad ogni animaletto Potter regalava una diversa espressione facciale – una sfida con la quale si sarebbero dovuti confrontare tutti i tassidermisti a venire.

I diorami di Potter, per quanto complessi, sembrano comunque infantili e un tantino ingenui, soprattutto se confrontati alle opere dei moderni artisti di tassidermia creativa. Forse questo è il momento di ricordare che tutti gli artisti di cui parleremo sono propugnatori di una tassidermia “etica” e responsabile, vale a dire che per le loro composizioni utilizzano esclusivamente 1) animali trovati morti sulle strade 2) parti di scarto di macelli o di collezioni museali 3) animali domestici donati dai proprietari dopo una morte naturale. Molti di questi artisti sono attivi in programmi di protezione della natura, e collaborano spesso con le facoltà di biologia delle principali università.

Sarina Brewer, ad esempio, oltre che prendere parte a diversi progetti di storia naturale dell’Università del Minnesota, nel tempo libero si occupa anche di riabilitazione e cura degli animali selvatici feriti. Nonostante questa sua sensibilità verso gli animali, le sue doti di esperta tassidermista si esprimono spesso in modo macabro e grottesco: Sarina infatti costruisce chimere, esseri fantastici e immaginari nati dalla commistione di diverse morfologie animali.

Da più di 20 anni grifoni, arpie, gatti alati, strane e meravigliose creature prendono vita a partire da scarti di animali fra le abili mani della Brewer. Sarina crede che proprio in questo risieda la bellezza della sua arte: “io mi occupo della morte in maniera che i più reputano non convenzionale. Io non vedo un animale morto come disgustoso o offensivo. Penso che tutte le creature siano belle, nella morte così come nella vita, belle di fuori come di dentro. Il mio lavoro è un omaggio alla loro bellezza, perché quando le reincarno nelle mie opere, sto creando una nuova vita là dove prima c’era solo morte”.

Iris Schieferstein non lavora esclusivamente con la tassidermia, ma quando lo fa, i risultati sono sempre controversi e puntano il dito sul nostro concetto di realtà, di buon gusto, e sulla crudeltà esibita nel concetto di moda (un po’ come il britannico Reid Peppard di cui avevamo già parlato in questo famigerato articolo). I lavori della Schieferstein sono ibridazioni di forme, inaspettate sculture che confondono i piani di senso associando organico e meccanico.

Polly Morgan è londinese, classe 1980. Il suo lavoro è al tempo stesso disturbante e commovente: assolutamente spiazzante, persino scioccante a volte, ma sempre pervaso da uno strano e sottile senso di magia.

I suoi animali addormentati in speciali mausolei sembrano esseri fiabeschi, e ci pare di ravvedere un’evidente compassione, una vera e propria pietas nell’approccio che la Morgan adotta verso i suoi soggetti.

A breve la seconda parte del nostro viaggio nel mondo della tassidermia artistica.